Book Review: The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions by George F. Will

(Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020) • 397 pages • $16.50 cloth

Whether one follows his twice-weekly columns, reads his bi-weekly essays, or enjoys his lively comments as a television panelist, one cannot fail to be impressed with George Will’s expressive erudition. No other contemporary columnist has quite his way with words or quite his ability to extract, in a thousand words or so, that which is “‘inside’ public matters: not what is secret, but what is latent, the kernel of principle and other significance that exists, recognized or not, ‘inside’ events, policies and manners.” Will’s latest collection of essays and columns is truly a restorative for those with Tory sensibilities and “the understanding that education consists primarily of arguing from, not with (one’s) patrimony.”

In more than six score finely fashioned, tightly reasoned pieces, two distinctly different Tory sensibilities emerge. The first is the conscience of the cultural conservative lamenting “the decline of almost everything since 1914" of”stained glass minds” which, not altogether jokingly, “mourn the passing of the thirteenth century: feudal codes, heraldic banners, serried ranks of bishops . . .” This is Will at his best, Will the social critic, conveying his urgent concern that Americans not lose what he terms “social sympathy”: “the ability to comprehend, however dimly, how other people (must) live.”

This is the Will educated at Oxford (“Like civilization, it is cumulative, complicated, old and densely packed.”) who reminds us that education “presupposes students who acknowledge their incompleteness and teachers who believe that the purpose of education is to put something into students rather than to let something—‘self-expression’—out.”

But there is a second Tory voice which makes itself heard in Will’s pages, and it is political. This is the argument that since “social and cultural anxieties find their way onto a society’s political agenda” it is well to use government as “an instrument of conservative values, tempering and directing social dynamism.” Will believes, indeed, with much of the New Right, that the “nation’s moral makeup is, today, soft wax on which national leadership can leave a long-lasting impress.” Needless to say, this is not the classical liberal’s view of the rightful role of the state, and George Will does not present it as such. “The overriding aim of liberalism, properly understood, is the expansion of liberty . . . Conservatism, properly understood, rejects the idea of a single overriding aim. Real conservatism is about balancing many competing values . . .” Well, life is about balancing competing values, but the classical liberal does not want such decisions made in the political realm. Not all of us have the same values, similarly ranked, and it is thus that liberty is not only itself a value but also the sine qua non for all personal value choices: it is not the role of government to undertake the balancing of competing values.

To Will, “. . . libertarianism is a recipe for the dissolution of public authority, social and religious traditions, and other restraints needed to prevent license . . .” To call oneself a “libertarian conservative,” he asserts, is a label as contradictory as “promiscuous celibate.” But few libertarians are nihilists, and those who are never redeem themselves with the nobel label “conservative.” The truth is that confusion is being promoted here at a rather elementary level: the doctrine that morality ought not to be imposed is philosophically distinct from the doctrine that there is no morality.

If Will sees liberty in general as the antithesis of sustained virtue rather than as the crucible out of which virtue is formed, his attitude towards capitalism is even less satisfying. It is not animus, by any means, but rather what George Gilder aptly labelled “the dirge of triumph.”

The 1980 Republican platform, Will argues, is woven from two incompatible strands. “One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former.” This, says Will, is perhaps the only point Marx got right. Capitalism, he continues, is a “relentless engine of change, a revolutionary inflamer of appetites, enlarger of expectations, and diminisher of patience.” “Republicans,” he warns, “see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify.” For Will this tension between the bourgeois ethic and conserving social values presents an “especially vexing” dilemma—that of “deciding what is to be conserved, and how.”

Mainstream conservatives can, however, and for the most part do, accept the position of Frank S. Meyer and Friedrich A. Hayek, that the alleged tension between social conservatism and economic freedom is largely given the lie by history. The first century of our nationhood saw both morality and piety, on the one hand, and freedom and the private property order, on the other. Rather than working against each other, freedom and tradition reinforce each other as Hayek so beautifully exposited in The Constitution of Liberty. Will writes that “Capitalism means the liberation and incessant flaming of appetites,” the “predictable consequence” of which is “social disintegration.” But, as Will should know, that is not the way things worked out. Social disintegration was brought on by slavery, not liberty, and later by intervention, not economic freedom.

But these are subordinate matters, among philosophical soul-mates, for on almost any specific policy issue, Will’s instincts are not with the statists. In essays such as “Government and the ‘Cheerleader Problem’, . . . . The FTC as Federal Nanny,” and “Sexism in the Car Pool: DOT Rides to the Rescue,” Will proves himself as witty an antistatist as ever was. But perhaps his fin est writings are his legal analyses, which give one “the joy, than which there is nothing purer, of an argument firmly made, like a nail straightly driven, its head flush to the plank.”

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